Susan Kiefel: from Legal Secretary to Chief Justice of the High Court

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By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Susan Kiefel QC AC, aged 62, will officially take up her appointment as the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia next January.

Justice Kiefel is the first female to be appointed to the position. But she is no stranger to ‘firsts’- in 1987, she was the first female barrister to achieve Queen’s Counsel (‘silk’) in Queensland, aged just 33.

From school leaver to highest judicial officer

Born in Cairns, Susan Kiefel left high school at the age of 15. She took a job as a legal secretary at a barristers’ chambers, and her love affair with the law began.

Ambitious, determined and driven, Kiefel rose steadily through the ranks of the legal profession. After achieving silk, she went on to complete a Master’s Degree in law at Cambridge University, and then onto carving out a career specialising in commercial law and equity.

She served in the Federal Court, the Queensland Supreme Court and was appointed to the High Court in September 2007.

In 2011, she was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to the law and to the judiciary, law reform and legal education in the areas of ethics, justice and governance.

Female at the top

Her appointment has been described as “historic”, “landmark” and a “triumph for women” who have their eyes on breaking through the glass ceiling, at a time when more women than ever are entering the traditionally male-dominated legal profession.

But those close to Justice Kiefel say she’d prefer to be recognised for her achievements as an exceptional lawyer, rather than have a focus on her gender.

In a recent statement, Ms Kiefel said she was “deeply honoured” by the appointment and will work to uphold the independence of the court and its importance as an institution.

In announcing her appointment, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described Kiefel as an “inspiration” to aspiring lawyers across the country.

“She has been one of Australia’s most outstanding judicial officers”, Mr Turnbull said, adding that:

“Her appointment grounds a great career with even greater judicial service yet to come in this very important role”.

Youth on the bench

Justice James Edelman will join Ms Kiefel on the High Court Bench. Edelman, from Western Australia, is one of the youngest ever appointments to the court, aged just 42.

The Prime Minister describes him as “one of the most outstanding legal minds of his generation”.

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